Tag Archives: 1950s

Jack Kerouac – Tristessa: Love, Frenzy and Sadness in Mexico City

13 Aug

Even though I always proclaim On the Road as my favourite novel by Jack Kerouac, it is the novella Tristessa that most often comes to mind when thinking about Kerouac because the story of his wild impossible love, decaying souls in seedy streets of Mexico City where “a soul eats another soul in a never ending void”, addiction, prostitution and poverty is so damn haunting, poignant and beautiful, from a literary point of view.

The novel starts in a chic Kerouac way, with him driving in a taxi with Tristessa, drunk, with a bottle of Juarez Bourbon in his hand, in a Mexico City on a rainy Saturday night. “Tristessa” is Kerouac’s name for a young prostitute and a morphine addict whose real name was Esperanza Villanueva.

It always puzzled me why he decided to change her name from Esperanza (“hope” in Spanish) to Tristessa (“tristeza” meaning “sadness” in Spanish), but the change, admittedly, makes the title sound cooler. Beauty of Kerouac’s writings often contrasts with the gritty reality he is describing, but he lived among that low-life and misfits and that gives his book a genuine flair. For example, he describes Tristessa as a beautiful, enchanting girl with high cheekbones and a sad face expression that speaks of resignation. In real life, she looked like a drug addict; ill, frail and weary. Other characters are also morphine addicts, pimps and thieves. In that shabby room where a hen, a dove, a rooster and a cat walk freely, a room with a leaking roof, posters of Mexican pin-ups on the wall, a dirty mattress, and candles on the little altar of virgin Mary, there Kerouac realises that birth and death are the same empty dream. There is too much restlessness in him to fully accept the idea, but Tristessa’s soul is full of beautiful resignation, she has nothing and wants nothing, choosing to walk through life mute on every suffering that comes. There’s something beautiful in that fragility, life stripped to its essence; painful and pointless without any pretending that it’s not true. Reading about Tristessa’s suffering is poignant, it makes you feel you want to reach out and help her, but you can’t. Kerouac’s novels burst with characters of sad, lost, vulnerable souls, fragile as poppy flowers that gently dance in the wind and yet, if you pick them, their petals fall, too fragile to live anywhere apart from the meadow. So, leave them there, on a vibrant green meadow, leave them to dance their short waltz and die in silence, you cannot help them.

In Tristessa, Kerouac describes with his typical vibrant, at parts poignant and sad, at parts fun and wild rock ‘n’ roll writing style a fragile period in time. Even though he returned to Mexico City two years after, nothing was the same. The mystical flair from the first few pages, that of candlelight and statue of Madonna, leaking roof, morphine and a hen, disappear quickly and turn into grey hopelessness and poverty of the slums. Kerouac drunk, Kerouac sober. Glamour stripped away. Sadness lingers. I’ve never been drunk in my life, and yet I feel “drunk” after reading Kerouac.

And now a few quotes:

It starts raining harder, I’ve got a long way to go walking and pushing that sore leg right along in the gathering rain, no chance no intention whatever of hailing a cab, the whiskey and the Morphine have made me unruffled by the sickness of the poison in my heart.

***

I play games with her fabulous eyes and she longs to be in a monastery.

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She is giving me my life back and not claiming it for herself as so many of the women you love do claim.

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And a wonderful, inspiring sentence to end the novel:

I’ll go to the south of Sicily in the winter, and paint memories of Arles – I’ll buy a piano and Mozart me that – I’ll write long sad tales about people in the legend of my life – This part is my part of the movie, let’s hear yours

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Anne Redpath – A Splash of Colour in the Grey North

16 Jun

I am re-posting this post from last year because I don’t have much time to write a new one at the moment, and also, I’ve been really loving the paintings by Anne Redpath recently, so I thought, why not, I’m sure my newer readers haven’t read it yet. Enjoy!

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After watching two documentaries by Michael Palin, one on the subject of The Colourists and the other on Anne Redpath, I was instantly captivated by this fresh and vibrant wave of art in the first half of the twentieth century.

Anne Redpath, Still Life of Flowers and a Teapot, c. 1950s

These intricate contrasts of grey or neutral backgrounds with splashes of vibrant colours: mauves, purples, pink, orange, lilac, yellow and misty blue, remind me of a contrast between reality and fantasy, everyday life and gaiety of circus. Scottish artist Anne Redpath (1895-1965) loved this contrast, especially after she moved to Edinburgh in 1949 and started making paintings that are now considered some of her best works. These ‘portraits’ of cheerful domesticity: bright and vivacious flowers in their grey vases, jugs, teapots, lace tablecloths, mantelpieces, armchairs and wacky carpets, all allowed her to explore colour to its full potential. If you take a look at the painting Still Life of Flowers and a Teapot, you’ll notice the excitement this contrast creates; first you see the gentle pinks and lilacs that exude serenity, and then the crimson red, blue and yellow frenzy on the left, daisies and roses are protruding from the vase, dying for someone to notice their beauty.

Anne Redpath, Still Life, Flowers in a Vase, c. 1950s

Anne Redpath, Flowers, c. early 1950s

Anne Redpath, Summer Flowers, 1945

This enthusiasm for colours, although reflected in different ways, is something that connects Anne Redpath with the Scottish group of painters called The Colourists. Anne said herself: ‘I am someone who is very interested in colour – and by that, I mean bright colour, gay colour; but at the same time, if you are a colourist, you like quiet colour as well and I think this love of gay colour is contrasted in my mind with this love of whites and greys.‘ Still, don’t be mistaken that Anne Redpath painted only these simple still lives. Oh no, she travelled a lot, more so near the end of her life than she did in her youth, and where ever her foot stepped, her brush followed.

Redpath led quite an exciting life; while studying at the Edinburgh College of Art she used her scholarship to travel to Bruges, Brussels, Paris and Italy, then, in 1920, she married an architect James Michie and soon her focus shifted from art to raising their three sons in sunny French Riviera. In the mid 1930s, now separated from her husband, she returned to the Scottish Borders along with her sons, and started painting again as a way of earning money. Travelling to warm and colourful places kept her artistically stimulated, and so she travelled to Venice, Spain, Brittany, the Canary Islands and Corsica. Along with her oh-so-famous still lives, scenes of catholic churches in Venice and France, houses in Corsica and boats at Concarneau, landscapes of French Riviera or Kyleakin and portraits of her family members are all part of her oeuvre.

Anne Redpath, Corsican Village, 1955, Glasgow Museums

Anne Redpath, Boats at Concarneau, 1953

Besides her beautiful still lives, I was particularly drawn to two other paintings, Corsican Village (1955) and Boats at Concarneau (1953). Corsican Village slightly reminds me of Chaim Soutine’s nervous brushstrokes, but only slightly. The painting is so vibrant; these tall dense houses clinging one to another, painted in greys, salmon pinks and olive greens, and then the beautiful careless brushstrokes in the left corner, as if Redpath is reminding us that she is here, the person behind the painting. This painting is really a moment captured in time, you can almost feel the waves crashing onto the shore and hear the seagulls.

Boats at Concarneau has a completely different mood. It’s a rhapsody of greys and blues where, instead of people, the sitters are tiny white houses in the background and small boats. Their red and green colours match the surroundings, and stand out at the same time. The blueness is just beautiful, though I still can’t decide whether this is a night scene or a moment before the storm, just when the dark clouds gather and everything is still until it starts pouring rain.

Anne Redpath, Still Life with Teapot on Round Table, 1945

Perhaps the thing I like the most about Anne Redpath’s art is its honesty. When you draw a parallel between her life and art she was making, you realise that all her paintings are truly her visual diaries, records of the places she visited and the unique way she saw them. And in her still lives, she painted objects that surrounded her and things she liked; the tea cups, jugs and vases all belonged to her, and most of it came from her travels. Her paintings show us how fully she embraced her life.

A Little Bit About Pollock, Kerouac and Beatniks

29 Dec

To whom shall I hire myself out? What beast should I adore? What holy image is attacked? What hearts shall I break? What lies shall I uphold? In what blood tread?‘ (Arthur Rimbaud, A Season in Hell – The Drunken Boat)

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAJackson Pollock in 1949

If you’d take a moment to think about the 1950s culture (in USA), I bet that the first things that would pop up in your mind would be film-stars such as Marylin Monroe and James Dean, drive-in cinemas, television, milkshakes, baby boom, suburban homes… Today, the 1950s seem like an idyllic decade, especially if we observe the cultural products of the time. Well not really. It was quite a restrictive and claustrophobic society to live in. Below the surface, this perfect society was hiding the beginning of the cold war, nuclear threats, McCarthysm, racial segregation etc. American reality of the 1950s was a picture of duality and hypocrisy. Medias portrayed it as they wished it to be, but something deviant and magical lay hidden beneath the surface. Every society has outsiders, the misfits, individuals that don’t belong. As an alternative to the perfect ’50s world, a different reality emerged, mostly related to artists, musicians, writers, actors and bohemians from the East and West coast of the States. This group was later named Beat generation, after a quote by Jack Kerouac.

1950. Lavender Mist Number 1 - Jackson PollockLavender Mist Number 1 – Jackson Pollock, 1950

World of Beat generation was a forerunner of the hippie counterculture that characterised the 1960s. World of Beatniks is a world of real characters immersed in Jazz, Be-Bop, marijuana, opium, amphetamine, Native American tradition of enjoying hallucinogenic substances, Mexico, prostitution, race mixing, reveries about Europe; it’s a world whose members have a strong desire to live, and are thus in conflict with the Western world which is striving for possession of material goods. Besides the well known beat generation authors such as Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, there were other artists unrelated to Beat generation who lived and created in the same spirit and embraced same ideas.

1948. Jackson Pollock, No. 6, 1948 - Jackson PollockJackson Pollock, No. 6, Jackson Pollock, 1948

One of those young people was Jackson Pollock, an important figure in abstract expressionism or ‘action painting’. He believed in the necessity of spontaneous impulse.The way Pollock painted is specific; he would put large canvases on the floor, meditate over them, and finally he would drip fluid paint on the canvas. As the canvases were large, he would walk right into them, becoming a part of the painting, rather than the creator of it. He said himself: Every good painter paints what he is.

Just like Chinese calligraphy, these paintings needed to be painted fast. They mustn’t be pre-devised, on the contrary, they must resemble a spontaneous outburst. Behind this requirement of artists and critics lies the influence not only of Chinese art, but the influence of all Far East mysticism, especially of Zen Buddhism. Part of the doctrine of Zen Buddhism is that one can’t be enlightened unless one is radically kicked out of routine of rational way of thinking. Opening quote by Arthur Rimbaud was written on the wall of studio of Lee Krasner, Pollock’s wife and a fellow painter. Poets like Rimbaud never go out of fashion because what they wrote can be translated in any era. Unfortunately, Lee neglected her career in order to help Pollock in his.

Whilst writing this post, Kerouac’s long poem ‘Mexico City Blues’ lingers in my mind. I am about to read it, and I thought it would be interesting to get in the mood of Beatniks for the occasion. Here are some pictures that remind me of beatniks and Kerouac’s novels:

1946. Café Scene - Raphael Soyer Café Scene, by Raphael Soyer, 1946

1940s Beatnik style ladyBeatnik style lady, 1940s

1953. Joyce Holden 'Girls in the Night', Universal, beatnikJoyce Holden ‘Girls in the Night’, Universal, 1953

1958. London Beat girl~ baggy jumper and pencil skirt to the knee. Late 50s-early 60s style, beatnikLondon Beat girl, 1958

1946. Too much liquor in Kansas, beatnikToo much liquor in Kansas, 1946

1950s Parisian Beatniks Hanging Out on Bank of the SeineParisian Beatniks Hanging Out on Bank of the Seine, 1950s

1950s Jackson Pollock and Lee KrasnerJackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, 1950s

1950s Helen Frankenthaler and her paintingsPainter Helen Frankenthaler sitting amidst her art in her studio. Location New York, 1956

For the end I’d like to share a quote by Helen Frankenthaler, a fellow abstract-expressionism painter who died a few years ago: There are no rules. That is how art is born, how breakthroughs happen. Go against the rules or ignore the rules. That is what invention is about.